Academic Commons Solution Stories

Taking Account of Collaborative Scholarship in Promotion and Tenure Decisions

The problem of evaluating an individual’s scholarly performance is akin to asking, How do you assign credit to jokes? It sounds like a frivolous question, but in fact the analogy holds. A landmark 1981 article on the public domain by Professor David Lange explored this very issue as it pertained to vaudeville humorists. Groucho Marx once explained that the use of material from other comedy acts, was entirely routine, adding: “In time, if [the comic] was any good, he would emerge from the routine character he had started with and evolve into a distinct personality of his own. This has been my experience and also that of my [Marx] brothers, and I believe this has been true of most of the other comedians.” “What Groucho is saying in this passage,” said Professor Lange, “is that although he and his brothers began as borrowers they ended as inventors….It is a central failing in the contemporary intellectual property literature and case law that that lesson, so widely acknowledged, is so imperfectly understood.” [1]


One might argue that the academy is trying to come to terms with a similar dynamic in scholarship – navigating the blurry line between “borrowing” and original invention in its highest forms. What’s different in scholarship in the digital age is that “individual achievement” may no longer be seen as an isolated fact and developmental end-point. Perhaps “originality” will increasingly be embedded in collective contexts, or at least our cultural lens will perceive it that way. In any case, the steady advance of digital technologies is making interdisciplinary collaborations a structural feature of contemporary scholarship, and a highly important one at that. These novel circumstances call upon the academy to realign its most venerated traditions to the exigencies of the time. New systems may be needed to recognize and reward individual scholarly achievement in a collegial context.


A major quandary facing higher education, as collaboration via digital technologies proliferates, is how to recognize individual accomplishments that are embedded in a collaborative context. If a university remains focused on conventional metrics of scholarly achievement, academia will overlook – and fail to reward – the significant innovations and new knowledge being generated through new technologies. Yet the pragmatics of this challenge are difficult because it is not always so easy to correlate effort with credit, especially as collaboration spans disciplines and methodologies. There are no consensus criteria for evaluation or assigning credit.


The logic of the existing tenure process is understandable because granting tenure to a person represents a big bet – perhaps $5 million over the course of a person’s academic career. It is also a bet on the university’s reputation, which is therefore more prone to take conservative stances in tenure decisions. Making a mistake in predicting the future greatness of a scholar or scientist can be an expensive mistake. But the pace of change in academic research and the growing role of large-scale collaborations makes it more difficult to predict accurately a tenure candidate’s prospects.


So how, then, might change come about? Some academics think that it will be the large, major research universities that will innovate. Their reputations are secure enough to “break the rules” and get away with it. The question may be how to encourage greater risk-taking and less risk-aversion in this area. Some argue that the existence of tenure itself causes greater risk aversion even though it was intended to serve the exact opposite purpose. Does the whole tenure bottleneck serve to throttle young scholars for taking risk, stepping outside of their disciplinary traditions, and entering into novel collaborations?


At USC, tenure candidates who are involved in collaborative projects sends out letters to their collaborators and invites them to explain in detail what he or she has contributed to joint projects. For a number of years, there has been a special letter sent to a tenure candidate’s collaborators, and the departmental committee is explicitly asked to gather evidence of an individual’s collaborative work. These procedures are intended to improve the rigor of tenure reviews and properly take account of collaborative academic scholarship, which the USC Research Committee has identified this as a priority.


There are other ways that universities can show their commitment to digital collaborations. They can dedicate more space to collaborative research; create social spaces for casual interactions among scholars from different disciplines; create services/spaces for visiting faculty/researchers; and revise tenure guidelines to encourage collaboration. It would also help for tenure committees to develop a system to determine credit in multi-author works, and procedures for giving credit for online faculty research activities.


[The above text draws upon a report that I wrote, "Creativity & Collaboration: Technolgoy & the Future of Research in the Academy: Report from a Symposium on Innovative Ways That Universities Do Research" (USC Office of Research; The Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, 2011).


[1] David Lange, “Recognizing the Public Domain,” 44 Law and Contemporary Problems 4 (1981).


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Idea No. 86